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“…he became scribe and secretary to his mind…” #fleurjaeggy #thesepossiblelives

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These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy
Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor

Reading books is a dangerous thing. Not only does it keep your mind exercised and in a constant state of stimulation, it also tends to make you perpetuate that state by suggesting ideas for more books you might want to read… Well, certainly that’s the case for me when I read something like Brian Dillon’s excellent “Suppose a Sentence”. As I said in my review, it’s one of those perilous books which has a list at the end and sends you off in all sorts of interesting directions to explore other works and authors. One particular book which caught my eye was “These Possible Lives” by Fleur Jaeggy (a Swiss author who writes in Italian – so perfect for #WITMonth) Although I have a fiction book by her unread, this very slim collection of essays sounded impossible to resist – so I didn’t…

Every morning Mrs. De Quincey inspected the children, perfuming them with lavender or rose water, and then icily dismissed them from her presence until lunch. Dreams of “terrific grandeur” settled on the nursery.

“These Possible Lives” is just 60 pages long, and contains three short essays which look at the lives of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats and Marcel Schwob. In short and strange sentences, Jaeggy manages to conjure a whole life, but in prose which is entirely individual and quite remarkable. Her writing is compressed and concise, her juxtapositions unexpected, and yet the book is incredibly lyrical.

Cloaked in a driver’s mantle, some legal papers, and frost, Thomas surprised his shoes and went skating down the street, coasting to a stop on the corner of Oxford Street in front of his little friend Ann.

De Quincey will, of course, be familiar as the author of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”; the poet Keats needs no introduction; however, Schwob, a French symbolist writer who influenced Borges and Bolano, is probably less familiar. Jaeggy’s pieces have no typical biographical structure, give no hard and fast details of dates and events and work; instead, they present impressionistic glimpses of the three men at points in their lives. Time jumps forwards with no warning and death approaches; in many ways, as Dillon has commented, this is as much about their deaths as their lives. There *are* facts, but not necessarily presented in a joined-up fashion. You could, I suppose, refer to them as precis of a life, but that’s doing them an injustice. Somehow, despite the brevity of essays, Jaeggy manages to convey the sense of a long and full life, well lived, even in cases such as Keats who died so young.

On the evidence of this work, Fleur Jaeggy is obviously a remarkable writer. I’ve seen her writing described as austere, but I think that’s not quite the word I would use here. Despite her concision, there’s an odd richness in her prose; and the rapid shifts and unusual connections she makes create a surprising depth in her narrative. And her sentences; they really are something else, as Brian Dillon made clear in his chapter on her writing in “Suppose a Sentence”! “These Possible Lives” is an extraordinary, brilliant and memorable book, with writing that quite took my breath away; and I really shall have to get to Jaeggy’s fiction work soon…

“As long as I did not meet him, my dream remained intact.” #WITMonth #AnnieErnaux @FitzcarraldoEds

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A Girl’s Story by Annie Ernaux
Translated by Alison L. Strayer

Annie Ernaux is an award-winning French author whose works have been making their way into the Anglophone world over recent years, most notably in the UK via the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions. Originally pitching her literary talents towards fiction, she switched to autobiographical works and these are the ones which most British readers would recognise – books like “I Remain in Darkness” and “The Years” have garnered much praise from readers and critics alike. Her most recent release via Fitzcarraldo is “A Girl’s Story” and, as an Ernaux virgin, I was very happy to be offered a copy by the publisher to cover for #WITmonth.

From what I’ve read about Ernaux’s books, they don’t mince their words; and “A Girl’s Story” is no exception. It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognise how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

The effects of the summer of 1958 are devastating, and Annie D. (Duschesne, as she was then) loses contact with H. at the end of the summer, and is rejected by the camp when she applies to be an instructor the following year. Instead, she spends time as an au pair in London, where her behaviour is still off-kiltre. She’s a self-obsessed young person, as so many are, with little knowledge of what’s happening in real life and a kind of blindness when it comes to major world events; she’s locked inside her head, fixated on her own emotions.

The cover of the US edition from Seven Stories Press

In itself, “A Girl’s Story” is an important book; in many ways, it could every woman’s story, as most of us have at some point faced abuse from men, whether verbal, physical, emotional or simply derision. As Ernaux comments at one point in the story (when both male and female instructors are mocking a letter of Annie’s which has been found and displayed on a noticeboard):

When I go back over the corridor scene, little by little, the girl in the middle becomes depersonalized, is no longer me or even Annie D. What happened in the corridor at the camp takes us back to time immemorial, all over the planet. Everywhere on earth, with every day that dawns, a woman stands surrounded by men ready to throw stones at her.

And how many naive young women have become obsessed by an older man who seems to be some kind of ideal, yet has little interest in them and casts them off when they’ve got what they want? But there’s something deeper at work in Ernaux’s writing as she tackles her past. Her narrative form is unusual; she distances herself from her past self, telling Annie D.’s story in the third person as if they were two separate people (which I suppose, in some ways, they are). It seems as if she’s conflicted, unable or unwilling to get into the mindset of the girl of summer 1958, yet trying to do just that. As she wrestles with herself, it’s as if she’s spent the intervening years trying to completely bury her memories and that part of her past and move on. However, the experience has marked her and stayed with her and she’s still unable to let go of it.

I wonder what it means for a woman to pore over scenes that happened over fifty years earlier, to which her memory can add nothing new at all. What is the belief that drives her, if not that memory is a form of knowledge?

Knowledge is control, I suppose; and by writing about her past and exploring the way memory works, Ernaux is trying to take back control over herself and the way she was perceived, control which she certainly didn’t have at the time. In retrospect, a young girl from a repressed household with a controlling mother, no wordly knowledge and no experience of men was a lamb to the slaughter and never should have been sent to the summer camp. But she was, and she had these vile experiences which had tainted her life, and this is, I suppose, Ernaux’s reckoning with them.

How are we present in the existences of others, their memories, the ways of being, even their acts? There is a staggering imbalance between the influence those two nights with that man have had upon my life, and the nothingness of my presence in his.

The things which happen to us when we’re young and impressionable *do* stay with us; and traumatic events like those which were inflicted on Annie D. couldn’t help but have a lasting effect. Fascinatingly, Ernaux traces the start of her writing life back to these events, as if they made her the woman she is – which seems to be a powerful, honest and confessional writer. She also captures the attitudes of the times quite brilliantly; the double standards applied to women, the expectations of their behaviour, and the casual misogyny which existed. “A Girl’s Story” is a vivid, often harrowing and yet inspiring book, as Annie D. suvived the events of the summer of 1958 and moved on to become the author which Annie Ernaux is. “A Girl’s Story” is a multi-layered read, looking not only at the events of the summer of 1958 and how they affected her; it also looks at issues around memory, trauma, blinkered perceptions and how we can totally submit our willpower to another human. It’s a compelling and unforgettable book, a chronicle of its era in many ways, and Ernaux is obviously an author I will need to explore further…

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher via Clare Bogen, for which many thanks!

“Life is but smoke and shadows” #WITMonth #TatyanaTolstaya @DauntBooksPub

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Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya
Translated by Anya Migdal

You’ll recall me having a grumble back at the end of June about how hopeless I am with reading challenges (although I’m happier with the concept of projects, and *have* got back on board with some during July). However, as I mentioned in my post yesterday, one event I always love to join in with is Women in Translation month; and my first book of translated female writing is a wonderful collection of short works by the amazing Tatyana Tolstaya.

Tolstaya, as her name suggests, has a fairly impressive literary lineage, including both Leo and Alexei Tolstoy. Born in Leningrad, she’s spent portions of her life living in America; and both of the countries appear as backdrops in this selection of short works. I say ‘works’ deliberately, because I think it’s a little simplistic to call what Tolstaya writes short stories. The works featured range in length from a few pages to novella length; some read as essays, some as autofiction and some as pure invention. What’s consistent, though, is the quality; as all are really excellent.

So where to start discussing this collection? Perhaps by mentioning a few favourites. The opening piece “20/20” reveals how the narrator discovered her inner vision and became an author after an eye operation to cure myopia; “Smoke and Shadows” is set in an American university and appears to start out as autofiction but then morphs into something more fantastic; and “A Young Lady in Bloom” is the story of a University student in Soviet Russia making ends meet by working as a telegram delivery girl, a job which lets her see behind the facades put up by the inhabitants.

It was June. Evenings were as bright as day, not at all menacing, but rather beautiful: Leningrad, deserted for the summer; magical streets of Petrogradky Island. On the building walls and above the entryways, mascarons of cats and mermaids, triangular female faces of resounding beauty: downcast eyes, luscious hair, daydreams. Alleyways bathed in crepuscular light, purple-hued lilac trees in the parks and gardens, and in the distance, beyond the Neva River, the spire of the Admiralty building.

Then there’s title piece, a long work which looks back at Tolstaya’s relationship with her house in America, as well as with the previous inhabitants and future tenants; “Without” meditates on how barren the modern world would be if Italy and its culture had never existed; and “The Invisible Maiden” is a beautiful extended piece where a woman narrator looks back over her life and times at the family dacha, the long hot summers, the people she knew and the changes which came. “The Square” takes a quirky look at Malevich’s famous painting, equating it with death; and “Doors and Demons” explores a visit to Paris where everything seems to go wrong…

These are just some of the riches in the book, because there isn’t a dud amongst them; in fact, it’s hard to pull out favourites because I enjoyed them all. Tolstaya has an individual, lyrical voice and beautifully captures her locations and characters. The pieces set in America were particularly striking, as she viewed that country with an outsider’s eyes. And the gorgeous atmosphere and sense of hot summer weather she pinned down in “The Invisible Maiden” was just stunning.

If you’re young lady with a braid, of an age of yearning and expectation, and it’s a white night June evening of unfading light, and no one is sleeping, and there is no death, and the sky seems full of music, it feels right to go stand on this portico, hugging a stucco-covered column, watching the sea of lilac bushes cascading down the steps, and breathing in the scent of its white misty foam, the scent of your own pure flesh, the scent of your hair. Life will deceive you later, but not just yet.

“Aetherial Worlds” was an absorbing read and I found myself completely sucked into Tolstaya’s world. There’s a sense of nostalgia running through the book, as Tolstaya meditates on her past, on lovers lost and family passed on; and indeed a world which has changed beyond recognition. In “Father” the narrator begins to dream of her missing parent as a young man; and there is the feeling of a writer taking stock of her life and remembering things which only now exist in an (a)etherial way, as phantoms of the past.

Tolstaya is an author new to me (though I *had* heard of her best known work “The Slynx”, which I believe is very different to this book). I don’t think I’m ready to tackle her dystopian novel quite yet, but her short works are obviously incredible and I believe there are plenty more available. I’m glad I discovered this book in time for #WITMonth as Tolstaya is a compelling writer whose prose and visions linger in the mind; I shall have to track down more of her short stories for next August!*

*****

* Ahem. If ever evidence was needed as to how my book collection is out of control….

After scheduling this post, I took the Tolstaya off to file it on the Russian shelves and discovered that I already own a collection of her short stories… I had *completely* forgotten this, and I’m 99.9% sure I haven’t read it. So that just shows how rubbish I am at keeping track of what I own; but, hey! I have another Tolstaya to read, so result! 😀

Coming up in August – Women, Spain and Viragos! #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust #SpanishLitMonth

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August is a busy time for reading challenges and events, and although I generally fight shy of these nowadays (as I mentioned in my post on Reading Challenges and Me), there are three that fall during this coming month in which I do like to take part. These are Women In Translation month, All Virago/All August and Spanish Lit Month (which seems to run for two months nowadays…); and of course these are all great excuses to grab books off the shelf and make lists and piles of books!

First up, Women in Translation; this event was started in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, with the aim of celebrating and promoting women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. It’s a wonderful and laudable event, in which I always try to take part; and frankly, with the amount of translated women on my TBR there’s plenty of choice. I have specifically not bought anything new for this challenge, but a quick cast around for what I have unread and easily locatable revealed this large pile:

That’s a substantial selection of works; many from the Russian and a mixture of fiction and non-fiction; and any would be fascinating right now. I’m particularly keen on getting to the Copenhagen Trilogy or a Petrushevskaya, but who knows? There is one book missing from these stacks which I’ve already read for #WITmonth – look out for my review tomorrow! And there was a late arrival on the scene when I succumbed to a purchase from the Folio Society summer sale – a new purchase yes, but not specifically for #WITmonth:

I wasn’t the only blogger who couldn’t resist this beautiful collection of Akhmatova’s poems… ;D

Next up is Spanish Lit Month, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog; he’s a stalwart of translated lit and an inspiration in how widely he reads. This is the pile of potentials I came up with:

A more modest pile, which contains works translated from the Spanish, Galician and Portugese. I had a minor panic at one point because, although Stu usually allows Portugese language books, I wasn’t sure if that was happening this year. Apparently it is, which is a great relief as if nothing else, there’s a Saramago I’m dying to read!

And finally All Virago/All August. This is an annual event on the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; I never stick to reading only Viragos for a month but I try to read at least one (and Persephones are allowed too). In contrast to the above stacks, I currently have just one contender:

I read about “Drawn from Life”, Stella Bowen’s autobiography, on Lisa’s blog and felt I just had to read it, so managed to procure a copy (not so easy…) It sounds marvellous and I hope this will be the month I get to it!

So – sort-of plans for August, but what I actually stick to and read remains to be seen. I guess if I read one from each category I shall be happy with that achievement. Are you joining in with any of these reading events? 😀

Bookish Serendipity

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Those of you who follow me on social media may have picked up that I’ve been on my travels recently. I usually do a summer round trip to visit the Aged Parent and then the Offspring, all of whom are located fairly close together in the East Midlands. As I don’t drive, I have to make several train journeys, which are usually enjoyable; as I like to settle down with a book and a coffee and let the train take the strain, as the old slogan used to say.

However, the first leg of the journey which involves going via London was horrendous. I ended up standing all the way on a train that felt like a sardine tin and I was Not Impressed. I couldn’t even read… The rest of visit and the train travel went swimmingly, however, and I had a lovely time everywhere. Middle Child put me up (she usually does) and they all looked after me beautifully. So I had several days of socialising, eating out and of course managed to sneak in a little book shopping… (well, it wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t, would it?)

As you can see, I managed to be pretty restrained! Two new books and three second-hand is good for me, and they all felt like essential purchases.

These are the newbies. I picked up the Pessoa in Hatchards at St. Pancras Station (yes, even while rushing frantically to catch a train, I made time for shopping – and only just made my connection by the skin of my teeth…) I’ve heard such good things about the Penguin translation that I wanted to try it, and this was the first Real Bookshop I’d seen it in. The Gonzalez was a sale item in Waterstones, Kettering – £3 is a real bargain and I had this one on a mental ‘must-read’ list so that was a find!

These are two of the second-hand books, from charity shops in Kettering and Leicester. I seem to be amassing a lot of Robertson Davies without actually reading him and I must get on with it. I also have about 5 gigantic Powys books lurking. I could spend a year just reading him…

And the third second-hand book is very, very interesting:

Finding a Green Virago I want is getting harder, as I don’t intend to try to collect them all, and so I’m quite selective nowadays. “Clash” was sitting in the Age Concern Bookshop in Leicester, and the blurb on the back intrigued me – it’s set around the General Strike of 1926, and as I was feeling the need of something to counteract the hideous right-wing stuff that’s going round at the moment I grabbed it (£2 – a real bargain). It was only when I got it back to the flat and looked more closely I realised that I had a nice review copy of Wilkinson’s second book at home, waiting for me to read… Serendipity or what! I’m about a third of the way into “Clash” at the moment and loving it, and so I think I might move straight on to “Division Bell” afterwards. How exciting!

So a reasonably small haul on my travels. I did, however, arrive back to find that this lovely review copy had arrived, courtesy of Michael Walmer:

I don’t know that I even knew that F. Tennyson Jesse had a sister, but this is she, and this is her only book. Sounds like fabulous fun and I’m really looking forward to it!

Reviewing has got slightly behind while I was away – I’ve finished Marina Tsvetaeva’s Moscow Diaries for #WITmonth, and also have been dipping into Catherine the Great’s Letters. So I’ve done *some* translated women, and I am well into a Virago – hey, I’m almost sticking to my plans!! 😀

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